Article Image

Read part 1 here

Having taken all meanings for our object, we can no longer speak of them in terms of significations as such, and find ourselves obliged somehow to take a position outside the realm of meanings in order to judge what they all, irrespective of their content, have formally in common with each other.

Jameson on Greimas, in The Prison House of Language (1972)

In the National Post column by Chris Selley referred to in the previous post, Selley discusses the Toronto Public Library room rental to Meghan Murphy and supports Vickery Bowles’ refusal to reconsider her position in the light of critics whom he considers censors. Later in the column, he refers to a bill tabled in Missouri which seeks to “establish parental oversight boards for libraries, allow those boards to remove materials from circulation, and establish penalties including imprisonment for librarians who allow ‘age-inappropriate sexual material’ - as defined by said parents - to fall into the hands of impressionable minors”.

Now the target of this bill is really the drag-queen storytimes which have been introduced at many libraries over the last year or so. Selley frames the Missouri bill as equivalent to protests against the Vancouver and Toronto room rentals, arguing that because they take the same form (parties looking to exclude certain speech from libraries) that they are the same thing. This is formalism: the idea that it is the form of something that defines it rather than its content. For Selley, the shared form of protest against particular kinds of speech in libraries means both protests are equivalent, and this formal equivalence is evidence that the library ought to retain its independence from both sides.

Now, form vs. content is a long standing debate in aesthetics and politics, and there is a long tradition of engaging with form (and formalism) in Hegel, Marx, and Marxism. Perhaps the most immediately obvious examples of form vs. content in Marxism are the formal freedom of workers, and the formal equality of capitalists and workers. Formal freedom of workers - freedom from feudal bonds, freedom to sell their labour - erases the fact that a worker who “chooses” not to sell their labour will die. The formal equality of capital and labour erases the power differential that exists between worker and capitalist: social power, political power, economic power. Liberalism relies on these formalisms in its attempt to balance social antagonisms and keep them in check. When phenomena that are formally the same (parents protesting drag queen storytime and trans people protesting hate speech), liberalism can retreat to abstract procedures in order to deal with them. This is why, for example, the responses to hate speech protest leaps immediately to what is legal. The law is the epitome of liberal proceduralism (well, the law and electoral democracy) used to support and reproduce white, patriarchal class society.

Wendy Brown, in her book on “tolerance in an age of identity and empire”1, argues that this proceduralism sacred to the liberal tradition, in fact prevents liberalism from adequately confronting contemporary political problems:

A public sphere formally devoid of all nonsecular sources of moral and ethical judgement is quite defenseless against substantive ethics claims; it has only proceduralism to fall back on, and thus cannot deliver compelling judgements about, or even interpret the meanings of, a polity’s thorniest ethical or political dilemmas.

The idea of a formalized approach to tolerance is addressed in Herbert Marcuse 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance”, which Brown engages with throughout her book. In the essay, Marcuse argues that the truth (content) of views must be understood in order to attack or defend them. This is in sharp contrast to liberal tolerance which requires that “all sides” of a debate be presented without prejudice (i.e. formal equality). Marcuse writes that a in regime of repressive tolerance

tolerance would be restricted with respect to movements of a demonstrably aggressive or destructive character (destructive of the prospects for peace, justice, and freedom for all). Such discrimination would also be applied to movements opposing the extension of social legislation to the poor, weak, disabled. As against the virulent denunciations that such a policy would do away with the sacred liberalistic principle of equality for ‘the other side’, I maintain that there are issues where either there is no ‘other side’ in any more than a formalistic sense, or where ‘the other side’ is demonstrably ‘regressive’ and impedes possible improvement of the human condition. To tolerate propaganda for inhumanity vitiates the goals not only of liberalism but of every progressive political philosophy.

This is essentially what (at least some) critics of absolutist-IF are arguing for. By taking the content of anti-drag-queen and anti-transphobia protest seriously, we can draw a distinction between them which is impossible for a liberalism that evacuates all normative questions of meaning, truth, or the good. Otherwise the procedure itself (intellectual freedom, policy, law) becomes the only yardstick of goodness, progress, or justice, and as a result, we end up where we currently are, caught in the horns of a dilemma, an “abstract and academic critique” (Marcuse) or the exercise of constituent power in the form of violence. Brown seeks to find a way out of this impasse, but for Marcuse, violence is unavoidable in a society predicated on violence. He writes that

there is a “natural right” of resistance for oppressed and overpowered minorities to use extralegal means if the legal ones have proved to be inadequate. Law and order are always and everywhere the law and order which protect the established hierarchy; it is nonsensical to invoke the absolute authority of this law and this order against those who suffer from it and struggle against it–not for personal advantages and revenge, but for their share of humanity. There is no other judge over them than the constituted authorities, the police, and their own conscience. If they use violence, they do not start a new chain of violence but try to break an established one. Since they will be punished, they know the risk, and when they are willing to take it, no third person, and least of all the educator and intellectual, has the right to preach them abstention.

We can see the truth of this in Indigenous land defense, anti-pipeline action, and solidarity blockades. We can see it in the anti-femicide protests in Mexico. We can see it in what to Canadians used to our anti-strike legal regime appear almost as wildcat labour action in the US and the UK. All of these confront hegemonic discursive power with real material authority (dare I say, sovereignty), which is why they must be confronted by the violence of capital or the state until they can be safely restored to the immaterial, unthreatening order of civility, discussion, and negotiation. It has been a liberal tactic since Locke to always reduce real material expressions of constituent power to the legal, procedural, discursive order where they pose no threat to the constituted bourgeois order itself.

In a review of Brown’s book Stanley Fish argues, in postmodernist style, that both Marcuse and Brown insist on truth as the way to break out of liberal proceduralism, but that this insistence leads to left-wing authoritarianism (for Marcuse) and to a theoretical double-bind (for Brown). The bind is this: Brown can either analyze value-free liberalism (like Marcuse) but stop short at deciding where the truth lies, or she can say where truth lies, in which case she risks falling into Marcuse’s authoritarianism.

However, we don’t have to tie ourselves up over notions of truth: we can apply the lessons of virtue ethics and concentrate on what is good. Disagreeing about what we think is good is easier than disagreeing over the truth, because the good is an overtly political category, while the truth is too easily recuperated into liberal notions of reason, procedure, and knowledge production. This then raises the question of what it means to be a “good” library - not an “arsenal of democratic culture” or a “cornerstone of liberty”, but what is good? Transphobic speech or true inclusion? Social justice or security theatre? The decision now depends less on unclear notions of truth and more on openly contested notions of virtue and the good. However, in order to be virtuous, the library has to eschew its liberal proceduralism, its merely formal commitment to community, diversity, and equity, and has to be able to say no to hate and exclusion. It has to exercise authority.

Liberals are terrified of authoritarianism, because the liberal ideology developed among a subaltern class in a world of absolute rulers. Lacking material power in that world, the bourgeoisie made reason the only legitimate authority, and so any other authority is either condemned or (in the case of liberalism’s own material power) hidden and obscured. The choice is not between a formalized, procedural, non-authoritarian, rational liberalism and tyranny from Right or Left (which is the position taken by Bowles and Selley, for example), but rather between the dissembling, hidden, mystified, internalized tyranny of bourgeois society and the authority of progressives - we can call this constituent power or, in a more orthodox Marxist frame of mind, we can call this the dictatorship of the proletariat as against the actually-existing dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Either way, we are talking about a radically direct democracy intolerant of challenges to its own authority and the humanity of its consituents.

This way of looking at things is hard for liberals, makes people uncomfortable, because they have been brought up to see Jefferson, Madison, the Constitution and the First Amendment as sacred. They are unable to understand that there are systems of values outside and beyond those of Locke, Mill, Habermas, and Rawls, or a culture beyond Norman Rockwell and apple pie. Fish sums up the problem succinctly, when he refers to the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy:

Many Western commentators were simply unable to see why mere words or pictorial representations could be received as grievously wounding — after all, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but…” — especially given that those who reacted most vehemently (and, on occasion, violently) were not directly the target of the cartoons (they were not being libeled, so what’s the big deal?). The idea that you could be so identified with a religious creed that criticisms of it would lead you to actions that might be appropriate if you were being physically assaulted (there is, after all, the speech-action distinction, isn’t there?) is simply inconceivable to those who have been taught (by everyone from Locke and Kant to John Rawls) that tolerance of views you oppose is the highest morality.

What Marcuse, Brown, and many other critics of IF-absolutism are saying is that “tolerance of views you oppose” cannot be the highest morality, and any deviation from that tolerance must not be immediately and uncritically called censorship. Marcuse again:

Universal toleration becomes questionable when its rationale no longer prevails, when tolerance is administered to manipulated and indoctrinated individuals who parrot, as their own, the opinion of their masters, for whom heteronomy has become autonomy.

We need to say yes to drag-queen story time, no to parental control boards; yes to community, no to transphobia. And we need to be able to say yes and no without worrying about formal consistency, proceduralism, or value-free abstraction. Rather, we need to commit to the values we want to see working in the world, without worrying that we are being intolerant of views, behaviours, and practices which must not be tolerated in a world made safer and better for everyone.

  1. Wendy Brown, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in an Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). 


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

Back to Overview